EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

2016 was a year that sent shockwaves through the Western world. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Britain voted to leave the European Union. All amidst a backdrop of terrorist attacks across Europe. 2017 could very well provide new shocks, with elections coming up in the Czech Republic, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Hungary and Poland are set to continue down their path of authoritarianism.

Underpinning these shockwaves is a widening gulf between not only “us” and “them”, the latter being primarily Muslims, but also amongst ourselves; the polarization within our societies are increasing to a hitherto unparalleled degree. Trump’s policies divide rather than unite the US. The UK is deeply torn between ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remainers’, with all that encompasses such as questions about Scotland’s future, in a divisive struggle that only seems to intensify rather than abate. The upcoming election in France is predicted to become extremely volatile, with the various camps and their voters seeming irreconcilable as their visions for France seem increasingly incompatible and divergent. Although Germany seems fortified against such volatility, AfD will nonetheless have their best election thus far.

How do we heal the divide that has arisen not only between “us” and “them”, but also amongst ourselves? What has caused it? It is of course impossible to provide a conclusive, simple answer to such a question; countless factors all play a part. However, one cause could be the presence of an increasingly sick political culture permeating our democracies, which is reflected most visibly in our politicians but which is present in the electorate as well. Sick in the sense that “we” – politicians and common citizens – increasingly view those of different ideological, political and religious convictions as enemies rather than healthy opposition.

Thus, rather than accepting differences, which is fundamental to maintaining a well-functioning democracy, a destructive culture of vengefulness has taken its place in which the electorate’s champions – elected politicians – compete in a race to the bottom rather than engaging in meaningful politics and society building.

This ultimately leads to disruptive populist policies and politicians, elected in on the promises of dismantling flagship policies everything implemented by the previous establishment, or what the country achieved through decades of effort. The examples are numerous. Donald Trump has set about dismantling his predecessor’s legacy, which, amongst other things, will happen at the expense of millions of citizens, who will lose access to basic health care. The promises of the Brexit Leave campaign proved empty, with ensuing disarray as Britain’s divorce from the EU looks to be of the painful kind, potentially negatively affecting millions of citizens as the NHS remains woefully underfunded, regional development aid will dry out, and prices are set to rise due to imposition of tariffs. Le Pen’s populist campaign promises of welfare are impossible to fund, particularly if France leaves the EU, which Le Pen is hell-bent on achieving.

The outcome is a predictable and unsustainable vicious cycle in which politics become more and extreme, with politicians trying to bend constitutional checks and balances, like Donald Trump is currently doing. In Europe, the same tendencies are primarily seen on the right wing of the political spectrum.

So should “the establishment” – liberals, believers in multiculturalism, people unafraid of globalization et al – work with these new political forces on the right wing, regardless of their populism?

It depends on the right wing. They are the ones with momentum, and the burden of delivering now lies firmly on their shoulders.

However, the right wing have so far proven largely incapable providing good governance, just as they proved themselves incapable of being a healthy opposition, resorting instead to toxic politics rooted in xenophobia, fearmongering, unsustainable welfare promises and, in the case of several V4 countries, a populist revival of authoritarianism rooted in nationalist ethnocentrism. All of this at the expense of sustainable, progressive policies tackling root causes.

The Republicans have mostly concerned themselves with obstructing the Democrats at every turn during Obama’s tenure, even in areas where their electorate would stand to reap rewards. The ‘Brexiteers’ ran from more or less every single promise they made since the Brexit referendum, leaving chaos and confusion, paving the way for the current “hard Brexit.”

The right wing in the EU, much like the Republicans in the US, needs to deliver something more tangible and sustainable than short-sighted extremist policies based purely on values and “feelings”, be it on migration, climate change, health care or economic policies. They need to seek center-based solutions either backed – or at least acceptable by – the opposition, lest the vicious cycle of disruption continues.

Will 2017 be the year where we adopt a more healthy political culture, one in which we view each other as players on the same team, regardless of our differences? One in which we acknowledge our differences as acceptable and work together in spite of them, one in which we do not view politics as a short-term (4 year) zero-sum game of winners and losers, but rather as a long-term project designed which we are all part of?

I fear we are not yet there, but given the polarization of our societies, we need to start the debate on how to get there. Perhaps the right wing will take the high road, in which case the left wing needs to step up as a viable team player. If not, the Left will, when power inevitably changes, have to choose carefully what to dismantle in order to avoid continuing the vicious cycle, regardless of how unpalatable some of the initiatives currently implemented by the right might be.

Christian Kvorning Lassen

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